Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

How Can I Monitor Groups?

How can I monitor groups?

Monitoring group projects requires as much planning and preparation as designing the project itself, but it helps prevent many common problems in group work. Effective monitoring depends on:

Students who have not worked in groups before, or who have experience only with ineffective groups, will need more structure, guidance, and regular communication with you. Students who are more experienced with group work, or who have worked in effective groups before, may need less. However, it is important to monitor all groups to some degree so that you can give feedback and intervene if necessary.

Providing a constructive framework for group interactions

Facilitate communication within groups. At the beginning of a group project, ask group members to exchange contact information and schedules and to plan how they will communicate with each other and exchange their work and ideas (e.g., email, group wiki, face-to-face meetings). Suggest technologies, such as online calendars, that can help group members coordinate their schedules and efforts more effectively.

Develop and practice conflict resolution skills. Before your students begin working together, consider introducing hypothetical group conflict scenarios (e.g., a group member is freeloading). Ask students to role-play or discuss these scenarios and, equally importantly, discuss possible constructive responses. This helps students anticipate potential problems and be prepared with appropriate responses, develop greater awareness of the interpersonal skills needed for effective group work, and draw on a common set of examples when talking to their group members, other classmates, and you.

Explain your own role. Describe how and when students should contact you (or a TA) if they experience problems within their groups, how you will observe their group interactions, and the situations in which you would intervene in group dynamics. Both you and your students may find it useful to set ground rules for their group interactions as a class exercise.

Gathering information and giving feedback on group interactions

Observe group interactions. You can monitor groups for potential or developing problems by observing their interactions in person or through other mediums. If you allocate class time for groups to meet, you can circulate in the classroom and observe the interactions within each group. Even if you cannot allocate class time for groups to meet, you can arrange to attend one of each group’s meetings outside of class or observe their exchanges in an online forum, such as a discussion board or wiki. In-person observations allow you to notice body language – for example, if group members are listening attentively to each other or if a group member is texting on a cell phone during a meeting. Regardless of the medium you use to observe groups, you can pay attention to language usage (e.g., whether group members give constructive feedback) and the quality and quantity of contributions from each group member.

Require formal periodic progress reports. To monitor how effectively group members are working together on a project, require group members or a group leader to submit (in writing) or present (orally) progress reports on a regular schedule, such as every week or every two weeks. If you ask groups to report on their progress to the entire class, this gives students the opportunity to solicit and receive advice from and share resources and ideas with other groups. However, depending on the project task, it may also lead to more convergent thinking. As part of a written progress report, consider requesting time logs for both individual and group work as one way of monitoring group members’ contributions.

Require formal periodic reports on group dynamics. In addition to progress reports, you might also require reports in which students reflect on the productive and non-productive dynamics and communication practices within their groups. This helps you monitor group interactions, and it helps students develop the metacognitive skills necessary to recognize and address problems.

Give feedback on group processes to groups and the class. It is important to give groups feedback on their interactions so students know that you value how they interact with each other and, if group process is part of the project goals and assessment, how you are assessing these interactions. If you observe a problem within a group, you can address it in several ways. For example, if a group member consistently criticizes other group members’ ideas, you can suggest more constructive language. If you observe the same problem occurring in several groups, you can discuss the problem – and its possible resolutions – with the entire class. You can also meet with a group or group member outside of class if more private feedback is appropriate. Remember that giving explicit, positive feedback on group members’ interactions (e.g., taking turns to talk in group meetings, providing constructive feedback to each other) helps to reinforce that these behaviors are productive and appropriate.

Anticipating and preparing for potential problems

Identifying project alternatives to address potential problems should be part of your process for planning group projects. Below are some of the most common potential problems that you may encounter while monitoring groups.

When a group member does not contribute… A common complaint from students working on a group project is that one member does not contribute. In addition to meeting with the group and/or individual group member to address this problem, consider allowing a group to dismiss a member who is not contributing and then providing other options to the student who has been dismissed from a group (e.g., completing the project individually, joining another group, forming a group with other students who have been dismissed).

When a group member is or becomes unavailable… Sometimes the number and demographics of students enrolled in a course change and no longer allow for the group composition that you had planned. For example, you may want students to work in pairs but one student drops the course and you now have an odd number of students, or you want students to work only with classmates in other majors but there is too much overlap among the groups. Consider if students whose group members have withdrawn from the course should join another group, complete the project individually, and so on. If student demographics do not allow students to meet a learning objective in the way you intended—for example, learning to communicate effectively with classmates in other disciplines—consider how this objective can be met in other ways for the group project or even in other assignments and activities.

When a group is not making adequate progress… A group may miss several deadlines or may produce work that does not meet your expectations in some way. In these cases, consider a range of possible causes. One or more group members may be freeloading, a group may not have sufficient scaffolding to perform some of the tasks related to the project, or the expectations for performance may be unclear. Although meeting with the group leader or the entire group about their progress may seem like the most logical solution, it is possible that students may not feel comfortable asking for additional support or clarification from you. In addition to reiterating or clarifying your expectations for progress, consider other ways of monitoring the group, such as observing a group meeting or asking group members to submit individual reports on group dynamics.

When the project’s scope is inappropriate… As students work on a group project, they or you may realize that the scope of the project is too large to complete within the context of the course or too small to provide adequate opportunity for the group to practice particular skills or demonstrate knowledge. Consider the relevance, frequency, and quantity of tasks and deliverables to identify where you can scale tasks and deliverables to accommodate the constraints of the course schedule, the number of group members (which may change over the course of the project), the learning objectives for the project, and other factors. For example, when a project’s scope is too large, you might tell a group that they can run fewer user-testing sessions as long as each group member gets the experience of running a session. Conversely, when a project’s scope is too small, you might tell a group that you expect them to provide additional documentation for a deliverable or to produce an in-depth reflection on their own learning as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their group’s interactions. 

When a client becomes unavailable… If a client becomes unavailable after the group has made progress in terms of research or deliverables, consider ways in which you, another instructor, or a new client can mimic the feedback and other interactions that the group would have had with the initial client. In such situations, it is important to emphasize to the group that this experience, although unfortunate and unanticipated, provides another layer of “real world” experience that they can cite as a learning experience in job interviews and similar contexts. 

When resources are or become unavailable… Sometimes the resources that a group needs to complete a project—such as a particular version of software or a car for traveling to meet with an external client—are or become unavailable. If a resource becomes unavailable at the beginning of a group project, it may be possible for a group to switch to a different project or revise the goals and product of the current project. You might also consider other means of analysis or production that are available, even if it changes some aspects of the final product, or identify related tasks and deliverables that a group can complete and that satisfy the same learning objectives.

Remember, if you encounter problems when monitoring groups and aren’t sure how to respond to them, you can always contact the Eberly Center for help.